Think Tank With Ben Wattenberg
Robert Bork, Camille Paglia, John Leo
MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. There is a great deal of sex and violence on television, in the movies and in our popular music. Does this lead to unacceptable behavior? Is this coarsening our lives? Or are sex and violence age-old staples of art and literature? In any event, what tools are available in a free society to change popular culture?
Joining us to sort through the conflict and the consensus are: Camille Paglia, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and author of the recently published "Vamps and Tramps"; Robert Bork, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming book, "Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline"; and John Leo, columnist for "U.S. News and World Report" and author of "Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police."
The topic before this house: Does Hollywood Hurt America? This week on "Think Tank."
It is one of America's great ironies. We love to watch television, to go to the movies and to listen to popular music, but when we do, many of us strongly object to what we see or hear, and we are especially concerned about what our children see and hear.
Recently, Senate majority leader and Republican presidential contender Bob Dole attacked Hollywood.
SENATOR BOB DOLE (R-KS): (From videotape.) Our music, movies, television, and advertising regularly push the limits of decency, and they bombard our children with the destructive message of casual violence and even more casual sex.
And I concluded that we must hold Hollywood and the entire entertainment industry accountable for putting profit ahead of common decency.
MR. WATTENBERG: Dole criticized movies like "Natural Born Killers" and "True Romance." Dole and others have singled out the Time-Warner Corporation for particular criticism.
C. DOLORES TUCKER: (From videotape.) I'm C. Dolores Tucker, chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women.
WILLIAM BENNETT: (From videotape.) I'm Bill Bennett, co-director of Empower America. MS. TUCKER: (From videotape.) I'm a liberal Democrat.
MR. BENNETT: (From videotape.) And I'm a conservative Republican.
MS. TUCKER: (From videotape.) Time-Warner's music division promotes music that celebrates the rape, torture and murder of women. The lyrics are both offensive and do terrible harm to our children.
MR. BENNETT: (From videotape.) Isn't anybody at Time-Warner embarrassed by these lyrics?
MR. WATTENBERG: Time-Warner's response has been quite cautious. Quote: "It is certainly not an easy matter to decide who the ultimate arbiter of creative content should be. We prefer to err on the side of freedom of expression." End quotes.
President Clinton had spoken out even earlier.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: (From videotape.) People in the entertainment industry in this country, we applaud your creativity and your worldwide success, and we support your freedom of expression. But you do have a responsibility to assess the impact of your work and to understand the damage that comes from the incessant, repetitive, mindless violence and irresponsible conduct that permeates our media all the time. (Applause.)
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, panel, lady and gentlemen, President Clinton and Senator Dole think that sex and violence in the movies can cause bad behavior.
Judge Bob Bork, do you think that there is a relationship between what we see on our television screens and hear in popular music and actual behavior?
MR. BORK: If there isn't, the advertisers are wasting billions of dollars a year. Michael Medved cites over 3,000 studies that show that a diet of constant violence in entertainment leads to aggressive, antisocial behavior.
As to the word sex, I think the lady who worked with the single mothers put it best. They said, how can we stop illegitimacy? She said, "Shoot Madonna." Now, that may be a little extreme, but you see her point.
MR. WATTENBERG: Camille Paglia, does depraved or decadent popular culture cause depraved or decadent behavior?
MS. PAGLIA: Well, as a great fan of Madonna, I have to say that I am more skeptical than Judge Bork of those thousands of studies, which I believe only show an anecdotal and incidental kind of relationship between what is seen on screen and what is done on the street.
I think in fact that violent fictions may provide a kind of cathartic release for certain eternal human energies.
I mean, by this standard, we would have to look very closely at "Hamlet," let's say, or -- which has multiple corpses on the stage at the end. This was, in effect, the argument that the Puritans used to close the theaters in Shakespeare's time. Or we'd have to look at "Oedipus Rex." All of Greek drama, it seems to me, is full of barbarities.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. John Leo.
MR. LEO: I think it obviously does have an effect. I mean the popular culture is the air that our kids breathe. And if you call women whores and bitches in a thousand songs, you shouldn't be surprised if young males start to treat them that way.
MR. WATTENBERG: How do you account for the fact -- I mean Camille alluded to it -- that in earlier times, I mean we had cartoons and Westerns and private-eye movies and monster movies and cop shows, as well as terrible violence in Shakespeare, and Sophocles and terrible -- not terrible --interesting, amusing sexuality in Aristophanes, and so on and so forth. So why do you claim that now is different, either of you?
MR. LEO: Let me jump in. I think that Camille is right that there is a cathartic aspect to it, but that works best in a stable culture with social controls. When you have a culture that seems to be melting down, as our does, you are going to find the next generation taking its messages of quick solutions through violence from the screen. It's not just that there is some violence in "Hamlet." It's that our children are watching thousands of murders and Bruce Willis is upping the body count in every "Diehard."
I think that gets through to kids, particularly young males, that that's the way to solve things and it's an okay solution.
MR. BORK: Kids watch about 20 hours of television a week. And the count for violence and murder is very high. I forget exactly what it is, but I think that they see nine murders an evening. They don't see Shakespeare that many times. We're drenched in violence.
MR. WATTENBERG: No, but people in Shakespeare's time saw Shakespeare that many times, or Sophocles in Sophocles' --
MR. BORK: I don't think anybody saw Shakespeare 20 hours a week. But be that as it may, also the violence was presented in a different context there. It had a plot to it and there was a reason for it. The violence now, they always refer to it as senseless violence. It is. It's just for the pleasure of seeing bodies fly apart.
MS. PAGLIA: Yeah, I think there has been a terrible decline in aesthetic standards in Hollywood, but I feel this is due to the transition from the great Hollywood studio era to the America of the 1950s, when television has now kept mass audiences at home. So over the last 30 years, I feel, there has been an evolution in the kind of movies being made. The only people who really go out to movies now are young people, people on dates, who like these kinds of cartoony mutilation of bodies, and so on.
There's no doubt that just in the period since I was in college, this was a great era of incredible classy, philosophical foreign films, art films that are completely gone now. I do -- I am concerned as a professor about the condition of America. I'm a great lover of popular culture, but we cannot have the young raised only on a diet of popular culture. This is why I am for also the canon of great writers in order to balance out this.
So as opposed to censorship, I say build up the high art and the study of great thinkers.
MR. WATTENBERG: But people other than teenagers, including me, do watch movies. I happen to think movies -- I mean the ones I watch -- are pretty wonderful. We have a -- it is a great American art form. It is being watched by more people these days, plus the international market. This is what is showing America's face, for good or for ill, I think mostly for good. I think many of those movies have a message of American individualism and upward mobility. And so why are we -- why are we beating up on the fact that some of it is rotten?
MR. LEO: Well, let me give you an example, I¹ll use a Republican perpetrator, since Bob Dole didn't. I like the "Terminator" movies, but in "Terminator 2," Schwarzenegger comes down naked from the future, and his first act is to walk into a poolroom and beat the living hell out of these guys who have jackets and motorcycles that he wants.
Well, first of all, this is a typical urban crime, but secondly, it's also seen through his eyes. You walk in, you see it through his eyes, and you're invited to enjoy the decimation of these characters -- who have done nothing. It's a pro-violence message in a way that you didn't used to get in American movies. You are given the taste and feel of violence, and it's made very inviting. And you're justified. You're here to stop World War III, so it's okay.
MS. PAGLIA: But again, I don't feel that there's a direct relationship between such movies and such scenes and the actual violence in the streets. For me, there are sociological factors for the violence in the streets, and that is the utter breakdown of community life in the inner cities because of the flight of the black middle class to the suburbs and the absence now of manufacturing jobs. There are a lot of unemployed black kids.
I, in point of fact, can remember stories that my relatives told of the violence of Italian-American youth 60 years ago, let's say. We should really examine, you know, the level of juvenile delinquency among ethnics other than blacks from the early part of the century. I'm not so sure -- now they have better weapons than they did then. They used to settle problems with knives and fists, and now, unfortunately, with Uzis. MR. WATTENBERG: Haven't you written, Camille, that you think pornography is good stuff?
MS. PAGLIA: Yes. I am radically pro-porn -- I know that that is an extreme position -- because I feel that pornography shows the truth about sexuality, the truth about our animal natures.
At the same time, I feel that it is appropriate to ask that pornography not be displayed in public spaces, that it should be available for private consumption, that no one has the right to intrude into public spaces and to --
MR. WATTENBERG: Is a movie theater a public space?
MS. PAGLIA: No, not in the sense that a public square or, let's say, even newsstand would be. In other words, I want the pornography available at the newsstand. I don't feel anyone has the right to display the pornography for Christian people who are wandering on the street.
MR. BORK: Well, the problem is that the people who enjoy the pornography change. They change themselves, and they change themselves for the worse. On Internet right now, I've learned that you can get Alt sex stories, and there you can read about the castration of a 7-year-old boy that is being shot, about the gang rape of a 6-year-old girl. You can get stories telling you when to lurk outside a girls' school, how to bundle into the van, whether to tell her in advance that after you're finished with her, she's going to be murdered. That stuff is on Internet now. Wait till George Gilder's digital films from all over the world are available.
MR. WATTENBERG: And you have just repeated it on public television.
MR. BORK: Not in the same loving detail.
MS. PAGLIA: Let me say about that, this proves my point that the effort, the coalition between the religious right and the feminist anti-porn wing has failed, that they thought they had finally cornered the market and limited it in the realm of pornographic films and videos. But look, the moment there's a new medium of communication, the -- what can I say? -- the perverse human soul bubbles up everywhere.
And so to me, the presence of these horrific stories on the Internet simply proves my point, that it may be the human imagination that we cannot fully police.
MR. BORK: Well, we used to have restraints of various kinds, not only law, but religion and morality, that kept these things in the corner at best. Now it's out in the open, and it may be the technology is such that it will be impossible to control it.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right, well, let -- go ahead, John.
MR. LEO: Well, I was going to say that I agree with Camille that various ethnic groups commit horrific violence. The Irish were very good at it into the last century, but it usually came under control because of the churches and the institutions which are now in collapse. So I think the attention to the public culture now is partly to acknowledge that the family and the churches can't stop this, that the public culture is the preacher now, so whatever is put into the pot of the public culture is likely to have direct effects that it didn't have before.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right, let us stipulate that. You have at least one skeptic here, me, but let us stipulate that bad culture drives bad behavior. What are you going to do about it? You alluded fondly to censorship.
MR. BORK: Fondly -- well, yes. I think it's inevitable that we're going to try censorship at some stage. I didn't used to think so. I thought that the public culture was beyond agreement on any form of censorship. But when you get the kind of stuff that's now on Internet, the kind of stuff I described, and when that appears in digital films you can watch on your home computer, I think we're in a very dangerous situation as we begin to appeal to perverts who could be triggered into action. I think we're going to have to try censorship. Whether we can do it or not, I don't know.
MR. WATTENBERG: You would like to see it succeed?
MR. BORK: Oh, yes. I don't want that kind of stuff floating around in this society.
MR. WATTENBERG: Any -- I mean not even undisplayed at a public newsstand, the way Camille was saying? It's not out in front of you, but you can say, I want a copy of "Hustler," and get it.
MR. BORK: I'm worried about the fellow who wants to get stories about young children being raped and murdered. That is not a normal mind, and I don't want to trigger that mind.
MR. WATTENBERG: What about "Playboy," "Penthouse," getting down to "Hustler"? What about those magazines?
MR. BORK: Ohh, I haven't seen -- I'm too embarrassed in the barber shop to pick one up, so I haven't really seen one for a long time.
MR. WATTENBERG: As part of your research, you could purchase one.
MR. BORK: Yeah, that's right. (Laughter.) No, I have seen -- occasionally seen them, and some of them, I think, deserve censorship.
MR. LEO: I think the real problem is --
MR. WATTENBERG: John, you're in the First Amendment business.
MR. LEO: Sure. No, I'm not for censorship, but my solution, however dreamy, is a change in consciousness. I think cultures do change, sexual attitudes change abruptly from generation to generation, as they have through English history quite regularly. And I think we can change consciousness in America.
MR. WATTENBERG: Camille.
MS. PAGLIA: Well, my analysis of pornography and history has been that the more there is a taboo of any kind in a culture, the more you will get imaginations that profane that sacred subject, whatever it is.
So I have the feeling that possibly the majority of these horrific fantasies of child abuse and murder, and so on, may be coming from other forces in the culture, not because people want to enact such frightful scenarios.
So, and I -- again, I -- as a student of psychopathology, I am simply doubtful of a direct correlation between people who indulge in such fantasies and the people who actually carry them out, because we have the example of Jules Duree (sp) and the Countess Dracula and Nero. These, such examples, they did not need printed pornography or Internet in order to stimulate their acts.
MR. LEO: We don't know.
MR. BORK: No, we don't. That's right. Remember those two young boys in England who killed the toddler?
MS. PAGLIA: Mm-hmm.
MR. BORK: It turns out that their father was an addict of snuff films, and one of them was the precise way in which they killed that kid.
And there were some boys who just strangled a friend from the rear seat of a car -- they strangled -- sitting in the front seat. They got that from "Godfather II," they said.
MS. PAGLIA: But it may be that -- millions and millions of people may see similar scenes; only a small number may be pushed into committing such acts, but perhaps they would have done these things anyway. Are we going to close down the whole society in order to prevent such I would say sociopaths from acting who might have acted anyway?
MR. WATTENBERG: John, you have written about the role of shame to get change done. Is that what you want to do when you say you want to change the culture?
MR. LEO: That's why I think the campaign against Time-Warner is so interesting. What it is, it's a clear appeal to shame, and I think it's working. The noises I hear within the Time-Warner empire are shame noises. We can't make them do anything. It's a tiny part of their empire, they're a tiny part of the cultural pollution business, but they are writhing. They're stunned by this. They don't know what to do. It's the purest leverage that shame induction has had in years. And I think it's a good lesson.
MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but what is the bottom line? Let us say that your campaign, and it's a larger campaign now, to sort of shame Time-Warner, which is one of the big guys on the block, to get rid of that sort of gangsta rap music --
MR. LEO: Someone else picks it up.
MR. WATTENBERG: Someone else picks it up, let's say another big company, I guess Sony, whatever, and they can be shamed into it -- or shamed out of it. But then you go down the food chain to smaller companies, or if you can shame the smaller companies that -- and that's hard, because they don't have theme parks, they don't have books, they don't have a lot of other things you can boycott, but suppose you can, then you're get new -- brand new companies putting out gangsta rap.
MR. LEO: I don't see the shame campaign going company to company, garage to garage. I think we're trying to get a psychic movement going among people, and so that it really is a demand-side revolution. You're going to have to tell people that we are all ashamed of this stuff and let's not buy it. So you're not going to go company by company. It's not a supply-end thing. We're just trying to get the whole mechanism going in the culture.
MR. BORK: Well, what you have to do is rebuild authority in the family because the people who are buying this gangsta rap are predominantly white suburban adolescents whose parents are letting them do it.
MR. LEO: The other thing that's happening is this is creating a great new debate within the black community. I think black people are very conflicted about this. They don't like to see their culture attacked by whites. On the other hand, a lot of them are very nervous about the image of black people that's being put out in these songs. So I think this campaign, and to the great credit of Dr. Tucker, has given great leverage to people in the black community who want change.
MS. PAGLIA: I believe that there should be public incentives for the great producers and the --and Time-Warner, and so on, to start focusing on quality productions. And I don't mean Shirley Temple productions. But I think when the momentum of the culture is to demand aesthetics in the style, again, of the old Hollywood studio system, where -- we look back at some of those movies, extraordinary quality at every level, from the lighting to the makeup to narrative to plot, and so on. And you could sit with grandparents and children in the same room and not be embarrassed. You could have a multi-generational experience in watching --
MR. WATTENBERG: And that all passed through the legendary Hayes office that was censorship. MS. PAGLIA: Well, you see, these arguments actually were going on in early Hollywood. There were producers who wanted to make movies more upscale, to make them -- to bring culture to the masses; others who wanted to bring blood and guts.
After all, let's remember the great circulation wars of the William Randolph Hearst era. It appears to be the case that the working-class audiences, the popular audience really does like kind of a high level of sex and violence that may make upper-middle-class white people uncomfortable. So I worry about a kind of elitist attitude that perhaps has crept into some of this cultural debate.
MR. BORK: I don't know that it's a class attitude, but there are differences among people. And there are some people who would be better off if some of that material is kept out of their hands. And it was, as Ben said, censorship agreed to by the industry through the Hayes office. And the best movies --that was the golden era of Hollywood.
MS. PAGLIA: The '30s, yes. As it happens, and this is true, after -- I hate to say it because I do love lurid pornography, but after the Hayes rules went through, we had fantastic films of the '30s and '40s that are still studied in classrooms.
MR. WATTENBERG: Bob, you had alluded to it -- family values, religious values. Are we in for what would be what the fourth great awakening, a turn of the cultural pendulum?
MR. BORK: Well, some people see -- for example, this promise-keepers movement, which is men getting together, 50,000, 75,000, in an auditorium where they pay money and they come and they pray and they sing hymns and they promise fidelity to their wives, and so forth -- some see that as the beginning of a religious awakening.
But I really think the public culture could only be reformed by a religious awakening. In the regency in England at the beginning of the last century, it was a dissolute, corrupt culture, and it was followed by the Victorian era. And the difference, apparently, was Methodism percolating through the upper classes and upper middle classes, and then to the working classes.
So without a religious revival, I'm not sure where we're going.
MS. PAGLIA: I have to say that I agree with what you just said, Judge Bork. I speak as a radical '60s libertarian. I think, in fact, that there is a movement back toward religious fundamentalism in the world because of the failure of modernism, modernism which gave only nihilism and has destroyed the education, I think, of -- you know, for the masses.
I've been warning my fellow liberals for a long time that they have pushed the country to the right and that I see among many young people a return to traditional religion as a kind of -- a hunger for spirituality that is missing.
MR. WATTENBERG: John, do you see that going on?
MR. LEO: Oh, I think so, too. I think, just to pick up the thought about liberalism, that liberalism has never really been endorsed by any major religion. Everybody feels a little uncomfortable about the emptiness of it.
And I think there is the beginning of a turn toward a religious -- but I don't see any religion filling that need. You get books like Gertrude Himmelfarb calling for a return to Victorian values. Well, who's going to do that? Well, normally a church does something like that, but no church now has that status quite, or that grasp of the American imagination.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right, let's have just one final little conversation here. Does this belong in politics? Are these political issues? Bob Dole was criticized, in part, for saying it: "Oh, he's never really paid much attention to this and now he's making a big political issue out of it." President Clinton is apparently telling some of his staff aides, "How come he's getting all the publicity? I mentioned it first." (Laughter.)
Should this be part of this political debate?
MR. BORK: Certainly it should. A political leader is not just somebody who talks about economics. He's also a cultural force. And there's no reason why that cultural force shouldn't be exerted in good directions.
MS. PAGLIA: Well, I feel, look at the Kennedys. I mean, Mrs. Kennedy brought a distinction and a kind of feeling for high art to the White House that I think we sorely need.
MR. LEO: I think politicians should speak out. I just don't want Washington to do anything about it. I think they'll only screw it up. I think it belongs to the people, that we're trying to grapple with a highly democratic, wild and raucous public culture and we have to grapple with it ourselves. Nobody is going to impose an answer to this, and Bob Dole and President Clinton are not going to solve our problems.
I'm glad they're talking about it, Bill Bradley, too, but I don't want them to solve it for us. They'll only mess it up.
MR. WATTENBERG: Do you think in this wild and raucous culture there is also some very vibrant health? I mean, I think so. Does anybody here --
MS. PAGLIA: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, I love America. I think America is the healthiest place in the world.
MR. WATTENBERG: You are "slouching toward Gomorrah" in your book. MR. BORK: But I think that's true of Western civilization in general. The industrialized countries of Western Europe are sort of heading in the same direction we are, and the poor Arab world, the Muslim world, they're trying to keep it out. They've got the Iranian police running around looking for satellite dishes so they can't get American culture. It's ridiculous, it's dictatorial, but one does see that they have a certain kind of point.
MR. WATTENBERG: You're anti-censorship in Iran, but in favor of it here? No. John --
MR. LEO: I think the good part about this cultural moment is that everything is now on the table. Everyone has a voice, everyone's a publisher, everyone's a consumer. There's no suppressed minority. Everybody can say whatever they want. And you're getting a lot of pain now, but I think something good could come out of it. MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Camille Paglia, Robert Bork and John Leo.